From Brando to Brice

Uri Klein
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Uri Klein

It was a bit bewildering to wade through the selection of movies due to be screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival, which opens next Thursday. But gradually, out of the seemingly endless list of works by so many directors from so many different countries, a few familiar names popped out, like markers along the roadside.

Among the works to be featured at the annual festival, which is being held for the 24th time, are films from French director Benoit Jacquot, the Italians Vittorio and Paolo Taviani, Japan's Yoji Yamada, the Indian Mira Nair and British director Julien Temple, as well as by Wim Wenders, Fernando Leon de Aranoa, Isabel Coixet and others, who collaborated on a collection of documentary movies. Entitled "Invisibles," the collection, produced by actor Javier Bardem, marks the 20th anniversary of the Spanish branch of Doctors Without Borders.

The following list includes some of the festival films that I have seen. It's a fairly random selection, but a few are definitely worth looking forward to and viewing.

'Killer of Sheep'

Especially impressive is "Killer of Sheep," African-American director Charles Barnett's first film, which was hidden away for three decades, until last year, when a copy of it was restored and it was screened again. At the time, J. Hoberman, the veteran film critic of The Village Voice, claimed, with justification, that this is perhaps one of the most important works of American cinema of the past decades.

Almost without a plot, and with a host of amateur actors, Barnett's film portrays everyday life in Watts, the black neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles. The style of direction, the black-and-white cinematography, and the film's episodic structure - which includes scenes in which seemingly "nothing happens," as well as others with long, accurate and unbelievably convincing dialogues - makes Barnett's film one that lacks melodrama or sentimentality, but which manages bravely and assertively to express the feeling of doom that characterizes life in the neighborhood in question.

Barnett makes excellent use of music (featuring, among others, songs from Paul Robeson and Dinah Washington; the fact that copyrights for these songs weren't secured is the reason for the film's long absence from theaters). The soundtrack complements the film and also infuses it with an air of irony and pain. The result is a near-perfect example of a film that combines the realistic and the poetic, expresses a harsh and sometimes cruel social outlook wrapped in human warmth, and is delicate, gentle and at times even romantic.

'In the Beginning Was the Image'

Peter Whitehead, born in England in 1937, was a scientist who became a photographer and documentary film director in the 1960s, retired from making movies in 1968, became a businessman for a brief period, bred hawks - and is now into pottery. His movies document a performance by Allen Ginsberg and other Beat poets at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and a Rolling Stones concert tour. He also made a film that attempts to refute the "Swinging London" myth. Paul Cronin's documentary "In the Beginning Was the Image" is a portrait of this fascinating man, and despite its length, 199 minutes, it doesn't contain a single dull moment.

Cronin's film is not just the portrayal of a most complex character; it also succeeds in telling the story of an entire period in the history of popular culture, during the second half of the 20th century, revealing its paradoxical intricacy in full.


This documentary by Mimi Freedman and Leslie Greif, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last month, is 165 minutes long, and while it doesn't provide much that's new to those familiar with Marlon Brando's biography, it's still interesting to see - especially for what it fails to do. The movie sets out to solve the mysteries of Brando's life and of why he was possibly the most important actor not only of his generation, but in the whole history of cinema. However, it proves once again that at least for now, there is no way to answer those questions satisfactorily.

Freedman and Greif's portrait suffers from the shallowness typical of movies of this kind, and avoids handling the more charged and provocative aspects of Brando's life and career. It may, nevertheless, be pleasing as an interim summary of the legend it represents.

'Director: John Ford'

In 1971 Peter Bogdanovich directed a work called "Director: John Ford," which was a look at the life of one of America's most important directors. The thesis behind Bogdanovich's film was that Ford, in his movies, documented the country's history - from the War of Independence through the Vietnam War. Based on this, Bogdanovich edited his film, which includes scenes from Ford's movies, amusing interviews with the director, who was notorious for his laconic and elusive answers, and interviews with some of his regular actors: John Wayne, Henry Fonda and others.

In 2006 Bogdanovich re-edited his movie, transformed it into one that explores Ford's work in more fields than in the original version, and added interviews with other people who were influenced by his movies, among them Clint Eastwood. The result is not only an interesting lesson about the work of one of the greatest directors in history, but a lesson about the fundamental basis and legacy of classical Hollywood cinema in general.

'State Legislature'

Frederick Wiseman is one of the greatest of all documentarians. His movies aren't easy to watch: They're long, meticulous and relentless, and their creator, in contrast to such filmmakers as Claude Lanzmann and Marcel Ophuls, refrains from intervening in them; he is, rather, an observer and witness. But his films are worth the effort, and this new one, "State Legislature," is no exception. Its 217 minutes follow the juridical process that takes place in the legal institutions in the State of Idaho. This material is presented as evidence of a democratic system that functions in spite of its flaws and limitations, and it is documented in the detailed, distant and quiet manner characteristic of Wiseman.

'Elegy of Life'

Last month at Cannes, Russian director Aleksander Sokurov premiered his latest film, "Aleksandra," in which opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya plays the role of an old woman who visits her grandson, a military officer in an exhausted post in Chechnya. Previously Sokurov, creator of movies such as "Mother and Son," "Molokh" and "Russian Ark," had directed "Elegy of Life" - a documentary about Vishnevskaya and her husband, the late cellist and maestro Mstislav Rostropovich. Despite the film's relative simplicity, it is a documentary directed completely in Sokurov's distinct style. In addition to telling the story of these two great musicians, who among other things were sent into exile for providing assistance to Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, the director also tells the story of the Russian spirit that, according to the film, Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich represent.

"Elegy of Life" also documents the great love story of this couple, who were married for 50 years, as well as the tale of their love of art. The film, in which Sokurov himself participates as interviewer and interpreter, evolves from a feeling of admiration for these two legendary musicians, but is also accompanied by a degree of humor, and sometimes even irony, which balances it and results in a complex, riveting and entertaining work.

'Import Export'

Austrian director Ulrich Seidel's film aroused great controversy when it was screened at Cannes this year. There were those who saw it as an intense film, with powerful drama and emotion, that deals with the place of the individual in contemporary European society. Others viewed it as a movie that exploits the distress of those who appear in it, especially the elderly in an old-age home in Austria, where some of the story takes place.

In my opinion, "Import Export," despite its problems, is extremely impressive. It tells the story of two characters who do not encounter one another throughout the film. One of them is a young, single mother, who leaves her daughter with her grandmother and travels from Ukraine to Austria, in search of a financially better life. The other character is a young man who, together with his stepfather, travels in the reverse route to conduct some shady business. The movie follows these two parallel journeys.

'Letters from the Sahara'

The distress of the individual who wishes to pursue a better life in another place for himself and his family, is also the main topic of "Letters from the Sahara," by veteran Italian director Vittorio De Seta, who is 84. The movie tells the story of an immigrant from Senegal who comes to Italy and encounters a series of hardships that eventually cause him to return to his homeland. In a style that is a cross between feature film and documentary, De Seta skillfully commemorates the story and character of this young immigrant. However, the movie suffers from overly predictable turns in the plot, and there is something too romantic in the way he depicts the protagonist, who supposedly represents all immigrants.

'Making Trouble'

Questions about immigration, absorption, ethnic and national identity, and gender - the main issues dominating cinema today - also surface in Rachel Talbot's documentary "Making Trouble." The movie paints a portrait of six Jewish women comedians who attained success in the United States: Yiddish theater and film star Molly Picon; Fanny Brice, whose character was portrayed by Barbra Streisand in the stage musical and film "Funny Girl"; Sophie Tucker, nicknamed the "Last of the Red Hot Mamas"; Joan Rivers; Gilda Radner; and the playwright Wendy Wasserstein.

The discussion of their legacy is predictable and shallow, and the only reason to see the movie is for the short archival segments included in it, documenting performances by Picon, Brice and Tucker. It's a shame that the director focuses much more on the other well-known women in the movie.